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An introduction to the life of jean paul sartre

One explanation for this may be that Sartre himself came to regret the publication of the book and later repudiated parts of it. My aim in this article is to give a straightforward introduction to the main themes of Existentialism and Humanism, pointing to its most obvious strengths and shortcomings. Paris, Existentialism and Humanism was first presented as a public lecture at the Club Maintenant in Paris in October This was a time of great intellectual ferment and guarded optimism: Paris had been liberated from the Nazi Occupation and reprisals against collaborators were being meted out.

There was a sense of the need for a reexamination of the previously unquestioned foundations of society and morality. People who would otherwise have led relatively uneventful lives had been forced to think about issues of integrity and betrayal in relation to the Occupation, the Resistance and the Vichy Government.

The truth about the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau was emerging; the atom bomb had been dropped for the first time — evidence of the human capacity for evil and destruction was everywhere. Philosophical, and in particular moral, questions were no longer of merely academic interest.

Only months before he had refused to accept the label: But what precisely is existentialism? What he meant by this was that, in contrast to a designed object such as a penknife — the blueprint and purpose an introduction to the life of jean paul sartre which pre-exist the actual physical thing — human beings have no pre-established purpose or nature, nor anything that we have to or ought to be. Sartre was an ardent atheist and so believed that there could be no Divine Artisan in whose mind our essential properties had been conceived.

Nor did he believe there to be any other external source of values: The basic given of the human predicament is that we are forced to choose what we will become, to define ourselves by our choice of action: If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself p. So for the penknife essence comes before existence; whereas for human beings the reverse is true — Sartre has nothing to say about the status of non-human animals in this scheme of things.

This emphasis on our freedom to choose what we are is characteristic of all existentialist thinkers. Although Sartre was himself an atheist, some existentialists, including Gabriel Marcel, have been Christians: Humanism It is important to get clear what Sartre meant by humanism. Humanism is a very general term usually used to refer to any theory which puts human beings at the centre of things: Humanism has the positive connotation of being humane and is generally associated with an optimistic outlook.


One version of humanism that Sartre rejects as absurd is the self-congratulatory revelling in the achievements of the human race pp. The humanism that he endorses emphasises the dignity of human beings; it also stresses the centrality of human choice to the creation of all values.

Others chided the existentialists for being overly pessimistic and for concentrating on all that is ignominious in the human condition — Sartre quotes a Catholic critic, Mlle Mercier, who accused him of forgetting how an infant smiles p. This criticism gains some substance from the fact that in Being and Nothingness Sartre had declared that man was a useless passion and that all forms of sexual love were doomed to be either forms of masochism or sadism.

From another quarter came the criticism that because existentialism concentrates so much on the choices of the individual it ignores the solidarity of humankind, a criticism made by Marxists and Christians alike. Yet another line of criticism came from those who saw existentialism as licensing the most heinous crimes in the name of free existential choice. These words have specific meanings for him — he uses them as technical terms and their connotations are significantly different from those they have in ordinary usage.

All three terms in everyday usage typically connote helplessness and suffering of various kinds; for Sartre, although they preserve some of these negative associations, they also have a positive and optimistic aspect, one which a superficial reading of the text might not reveal.

Nietzsche did not mean that God had once been alive, but rather that the belief in God was no longer a tenable position in the late nineteenth century. The choice of word stresses the solitary position of human beings alone in the universe with no external source of objective value.

  1. Suivi de Morts sans sepulture, piece en deux actes et quatre tableax, Gallimard, I was escaping from the grown-ups," he wrote in The Words.
  2. This consists in choosing in a way which reflects the nature of the for-itself as both transcendence and facticity. This importance derives ultimately from its ethical relevance.
  3. At the beginning of the decade Sartre began work on a fictional piece first called "A Pamphlet on Contingency" contingency being lack of foundation , which developed into his first novel, Nausea.

The main consequence of abandonment is, as we have seen, the absence of any objective source of moral law: In order to meet the criticism that without God there can be no morality, Sartre develops his theory about the implications of freedom and the associated state of anguish. Anguish Sartre believes wholeheartedly in the freedom of the will: Although he rejects the idea that human beings have any essence, he takes the essence of human beings to be that they are free when he declares: Recognition of the choices available to each of us entails recognition of our responsibility for what we do and are: Sartre believes that we are responsible for everything that we really are.

Obviously we cannot choose who our parents were, where we were born, whether we will die, and so on; but Sartre does go so far as to say that we are responsible for how we feel, that we choose our emotions, and that to deny this is bad faith.

In fact Sartre goes beyond even this. So, to take an example Sartre uses, if I choose to marry and to have children I thereby commit not only myself but the whole of humankind to the practice of this form of monogamy. This is in many ways reminiscent of Immanuel Kant's concept of universalisability: Like Abraham whom God instructed to sacrifice his son, we are in a state of anguish performing actions, the outcome of which we cannot ascertain, with a great weight of responsibility: Despair Despair, like abandonment and anguish, is an emotive term.

About Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre

Whatever I desire to do, other people or external events may thwart. The attitude of despair is one of stoic indifference to the way things turn out: We cannot rely on anything which is outside our control, but this does not mean we should abandon ourselves to inaction: As Sartre puts it: He tells the story of a pupil of his who was faced with a genuine moral dilemma: He was forced to choose between filial loyalty and the preservation of his country. Sartre first of all shows the poverty of traditional Christian and Kantian moral doctrines in dealing with such a dilemma.

Christian doctrine would tell the youth to act with charity, love his neighbour and be prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. However this gives little help since he still would have to decide whether he owed more love to his mother or to his country.

The Kantian ethic advises never to treat others as means to an end. But this gives no satisfactory solution: Sartre maintains that even if he were to ask for advice, the choice of advisor would itself be highly significant since he would know in advance the sort of advice different people would be likely to give. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: Criticisms of Existentialism and Humanism In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre does not always provide arguments for his contentions.

Much of the lecture is delivered in rhetorical and exaggerated terms. He does not for example defend but merely states his belief in the extent of human freedom. But, perhaps more damagingly, it is questionable whether he actually achieves his most important stated aim, namely to rebut the criticism that if there is no God then anything is permitted - or an introduction to the life of jean paul sartre put it in other words, he never demonstrates that his philosophy genuinely is a humanism, that it does not encourage the moral anarchy that some of his contemporaries believed it did.

Sartre would argue that the fact that existentialists actually increase the scope of responsibility beyond its usual domain, making each of us responsible for a whole image of humankind, puts it beyond criticism in this respect. However, his move from individual morality to responsibility for the whole species is at least contentious. This is how he puts it: What we choose is always the better.

Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre

Why, because something is better for us should it be better for all? It is also self-contradictory because it assumes the human nature that elsewhere he is at such pains to say does not exist. On the basis of this unelaborated stipulation he continues: If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image if valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves.

  • The Contribution of Jeaul Sartre, Transaction,
  • Essays in Existentialism, selected and edited with a foreword by Baskin, Citadel, 1967;
  • Chiodi, Pietro, Sartre and Marxism, Harvester,
  • Looking at realism, Sartre claims that no access to other minds is ever possible, and that for a realist approach the existence of the other is a mere hypothesis;
  • The individual choice of fundamental project is an original choice BN,

Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. In one swift movement Sartre has moved from the individual choosing for him or herself to the whole of humankind in an entire epoch.

Jean Paul Sartre: Existentialism

This at least needs some kind of argument to support it. Particularly in view of the pivotal role it plays in his lecture. But even if we are to give Sartre the benefit of the doubt on this, does his universalisability manoeuvre really protect him from the charge that his philosophy would justify any behaviour whatsoever no matter how heinous?

Take the example of Adolf Hitler. Here was a man who believed wholeheartedly that what he was doing was not just right for him, but for humanity: Had Hitler been an existentialist he could have declared that his choices had been made in a world without pre-existing values and that they were not just binding on him but on the whole of humanity for the entire epoch.

In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre does argue that someone who genuinely chooses to be free i. Quite clearly Hitler did not respect the freedom of people who disagreed with him or happened to be of the wrong race, so perhaps Sartre could answer the objection that his existential ethics could be used to justify the most horrendous crimes.

If we accept the principle, then existentialist ethics escapes the criticism. However there is no obvious reason why someone who believes that there are no preestablished values or guidelines should be prepared to accept such a principle: Nevertheless, despite its flaws and obscurities, Existentialism and Humanism has tremendous appeal as impassioned rhetoric.

It addresses the kind of questions that most of us hoped philosophy would answer and which contemporary analytic philosophy largely ignores. Perhaps its greatest strength is its concentration on freedom: Heinemann is a fascinating biography. Routledge is the classic existentialist text.

Unfortunately it is extremely obscure in places.

  1. Moreover, the triad of these three moments is, unlike a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad, inherently instable.
  2. This accounts for the phenomenology of 'seeing', which is such that the subject is clearly aware of her pre-reflective consciousness of the house.
  3. Rather, conscious acts are spontaneous, and since all pre-reflective consciousness is transparent to itself, the agent is fully responsible for them and a fortiori for his ego. A bourgeois, he hated the middle classes and wanted to chastise them; "I became a traitor and remained one," he wrote in The Words.
  4. Sartre puts his own mark on this view by presenting consciousness as being transparent, i. For Sartre, the phenomenon reveals, rather than conceals, reality.
  5. Particularly impressive is the title story, which recounts an episode from the Spanish Civil War, and the final one, "The Childhood of a Leader," which, while autobiographical to a considerable degree, has as its main plot thread the making of a Fascist. So, the dependence upon the other which characterises the individuation of a particular ego is simultaneously denied.

The best way to make sense of it is to use Joseph S. Nigel Warburton lectures at the Open University and has written Philosophy: